We have received insightful comments on our Academia Letters paper ‘Information Disorder Online is an Issue of Information Quality’ published in August 2021. It is a short paper, a ‘letter’, that presents a tentative theory of online information quality. The paper introduces two new terms ‘off-information’ and ‘non-information’ to the scholarly literature/information quality body of knowledge.
Presented here are two of the many comments: The first comment is critical (our response is also shown below), the second comment is laudatory.
Comment from David Shackleton
This paper addresses a vital area of social need, i.e., online information quality. The attempt to categorize types of poor information quality is a worthy start. However, the categories chosen do not serve the issue well, and could add to the confusion. The categorization is built around the concept of meaning, but the concept seems to be poorly applied. For instance, it is claimed that the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is meaningless. However, this is not true. Meaning is inherent in sentences because it is delivered by the sentence components, i.e., words, which carry absolute meaning. More correct would be to say that the meaning of that sentence is incoherent, because the meaning delivered by each word does not aggregate coherently into a sentence meaning. However, it is important to acknowledge that incoherence is not absence of meaning. The sentence definitely says something, it’s just something that is hard to relate to the real world. In addition, it is self-contradictory, which again does not obliterate meaning – if it did, we would have no way of knowing that a self-contradiction existed. The self-contradiction of the sentence is an ARTIFACT of meaning; without knowing the meaning of the words, we would have no way of recognizing the self-contradiction. Great precision of thought is required in this area if we are to provide a useful contribution to the vexing problem of online misinformation and disinformation. This paper goes in a useful direction, but it is not yet adequate to the task it attempts.
Response from Uyi Omoregie:
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that a sentence such as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” relates to something that is hard to relate to the real world. My approach to online content analysis, regarding ‘meaning’, is Wittgensteinian, specifically ‘logical atomism’ as detailed in his 1922 book Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. The key proposition in that book : the REAL world is made up of facts which picture reality.
It is not possible to elaborate in a brief paper with a 5-page limit that Academia Letters requires. For more exposition see my fuller preprint: ‘Online Misinformation Analysis and Information Quality Theory (A Wittgensteinian Approach)’
I follow the the general definition of information (GDI) and it defines information as “data that is well-formed and meaningful.” For online content analysis (in practice not theory) we deal with everyday people (not scholars or philosophers), so the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is generally accepted as being meaningless — certainly if forwarded as a ‘message’ to other users on platforms like Facebook, WeChat, Twitter. A Ramseyan approach (following Frank Ramsey) to truth, belief (and by implication ‘meaning’) requires that information should lead to understanding, knowledge, action or decision. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” could have meaning in Mars or Pluto but not yet on Earth! Yes, every sentence says something — the quality of information varies from low to high and ‘meaningless content’ carries low or zero information quality (in an online content moderation context).
Most words do not have absolute meanings — ambiguity abounds in the English language. You cannot isolate individual words in a sentence and give them your own meaning: many times a sentence comprising of individual words has to be analysed as a whole to reveal the meaning of some particular words which could have more than one meanings. So, any sentence can be GIVEN a meaning by any person but the LITERAL meaning is the meaning generally understood and accepted by fluent speakers of a language. Fluent speakers generally analyse the whole sentence (not just individual words) to get the meaning of what is communicated.
I then contacted Professor Noam Chomsky (Emeritus Institute Professor of MIT), to specifically get his reaction/insights on the issue of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, which is a famous quote from Chomsky’s seminal book ‘Syntactic Structures’ published in 1957.
Noam Chomsky’s response:
Lots of people, even professionals who should know better, have misunderstood the example the same way. Any random sequence of words can be given a meaning. Some have a literal meaning and don’t have to be given a meaning. That’s the distinction between the paired examples:
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
- Revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently
A crucial distinction for anyone interested in the nature of meaning.
Comment from Tony Debest:
This paper raises very important questions, which can (should) be approached under various viewpoints: educational, political, ethical, judicial and more.
I consider the popularization of the Internet to be one of the greatest human discoveries, to be put on par with those of language, writing and printing. This discovery opens up the possibility to improve the collective human intelligence with the power of billions of individual intelligences. However, it should be noted that collective intelligence evolves much more slowly than that of individuals, and that it always remains much lower than that of *certain* individuals.
This is the theory, but, by its implementation, the Internet has also weaknesses, that may just reverse all of its positive qualities into negative, perhaps even fatal, defects. This is because, like any other human creation, it can be controlled or manipulated by *some* humans, that may use it to support *their* own interests, at the expense of the entire humanity. Being aware of the problem is certainly the most actual and important thing to do in the current times. Thank you for putting your thoughts on discussion